Photo or Photorealistic? 12 Tips on How To Draw Hyperrealistic Portraits

One of the most incredible artforms I’ve seen is photorealistic – or hyperrealistic – drawing: its detail, and its inconceivable realism. And when you watch a timelapse of those drawings being made, it is absolutely mesmerizing. Take any of these videos of colored pencil portraits by 20-year-old self-taught illustrator Heather Rooney.

What do you think? Would you like to learn how to draw incredible photorealistic illustrations like Rooney’s? It takes years of practice, but we have collected 11 tips that can help get you started.

The tips come from art blog and websites Fine Art Tips with Lori McNee,, Student Art Guide and WebNeel. All the phenomenal videos featured here are from Rooney’s YouTube profile.

Check them out and get started on your path to learning how to create photorealistic art!

1. Subject Matter and Materials

Decide what you want to draw and what drawing utensils and paper you want to use. If you decide on pencils, make sure to keep them sharp, and to use paper that will hold the pencil’s graphite well. Chisel-point and blunt pencils are useful for some particular drawing techniques, but for the most part, it’s best to use sharp points. Helpful hint: you can brighten the point of your pencil by rubbing the side of your pencil on scrap paper between sharpening.

2. Look At Your Subject

It’s critical to always look at what you’re drawing, especially if you’re drawing from life. Your eyes should bounce back and forth, from subject to paper and back again. This might sound obvious, but it’s a common error. People tend to want to draw a subject as they think it should look, rather than how it actually looks. But the only way to accurately render a subject’s shape, proportion and detail is to look constantly at the source.

3. Avoid Tracing

It may be tempting to trace when drawing from photographs, but it’s important not to. Tracing your subject and then applying color and tone involves less skill, teaches you little, and runs the risk of producing soulless artwork. All in all, it’s much less satisfying.

4. Lightly Outline Your Subject

When you begin drawing, lightly outline your subject and then start adding in the major forms. Use large shapes, light and shadows to guide you, and leave the details for later. In the beginning, you’ll want to work with the drawing as a whole and avoid lingering in one area.

5. Get the Right Proportions

Use grids, guidelines or basic forms to get the right proportions and to ensure that the proportions are maintained, approximating basic forms or using guidelines as aids. If you’re working from a photograph, using a grid can yield extremely accurate work because it helps you focus on one segment of an image at a time and gives you a way to gauge the distances of arbitrary lines.

6. Understand Perspective

Getting the right perspective is key to making a great drawing. As objects get further away, they appear smaller. To show this, you must use vanishing points – the point in a picture plane where two seemingly parallel lines come together in the distance.

7. Use a Wide Range of Tone

To apply the proper tone, look at your subject – again, the subject is your source! Observe where the light and dark areas occur and try as best you can to copy what you see. In almost every drawing, you will have a full range of tone, from white to black, all kinds of grays to mid-tone colors. Just remember that tone should never be invented nor applied by guessing.

8. Create Outlines

It’s tempting for novice artists to darken the outlines of their drawing, but outlines should be created and defined by a change in tone and/or color. At this time, you should also look to darken the background to contrast with and help define your outlines. Be patient when rendering your deepest black values, as the darkness will accumulate with multiple layers of pencil.

9. Surface Quality and Texture

Mark-making is an art term that means drawing different lines, patterns and textures. It’s how you develop the subject matter’s surface quality and appearance. There are several different ways your pencil can strike the paper to convey the texture you desire: dashes, smudges, hatching or thin strokes, dots, etc. You can also vary the weight of a line by applying different amounts of pressure when drawing: the harder you press the pencil into the paper, the darker the line; the softer you press, the lighter the line.

10. Include and Omit Detail

When drawing complex subjects, it’s easy to know what details to add, but it’s much harder to decide what to omit. As the artist, you are in a position to pick and choose what goes into your art. It’s not necessary to draw every leaf on that tree or every strand of hair on that head. Omitting details is perfectly fine, and, in fact, easier on the eye, as long as the decision is based on what is aesthetically best for the artwork.

11. Achieve Even Shading

The purpose of shading is to darken or color your drawing with lines or blocks of graphite. The best way to achieve even shading is to work back and forth over the same area. Randomly changing where the tip of the pencil lands, changing direction or using a circular motion can make the drawing look less mechanical and more even. Smudging is also a great technique to even your shading, as it smooths out the pencil marks and creates a variety of shades on the page. One last helpful hint on shading: the eraser is your friend, not only does it remove mistakes but it lightens areas to create highlights.

12. Continue Until You Are Satisfied

All that’s left to do is continue drawing, outlining, shading, and adding texture until you are satisfied with your work. You will know when your work is finished.

Follow these 12 steps and you’ll be on your way to drawing breathtakingly photorealistic artwork!

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